Planned Parenthood in Portland: 50 years of giving care, taking criticism

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PORTLAND — Planned Parenthood of Northern New England celebrates its 50th anniversary this week with an emphasis on providing health and reproductive care in a nonjudgmental fashion.

“When you look at women and women’s health-care needs, this is a basic part of their lives,” PPNNE spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said April 23.

The celebration is capped with a dinner at Holiday Inn by the Bay on Spring Street where siblings Peter, Janet and Dora Ann Mills will be honored “for their collective leadership and support of a woman’s right to make her own personal, private medical decisions,” Clegg said.

The volunteer “greeters” who escort patients into PPNNE offices when protesters are present, and the nonprofit health co-op Maine Community Health Options, will also be honored.

Peter Mills is a former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate who now heads the Maine Turnpike Authority. Janet Mills is Maine’s attorney general, and Dora Ann Mills is a former Maine Health Officer and head of the state Center for Disease Control who is now vice president for clinical affairs at the University of New England.

“Maine has taken a very common-sense approach to women’s health care since the mid-’80s,” Clegg said as she praised the Millses and former Govs. John McKernan, Angus King and John Baldacci for understanding and promoting accessible health care.

PPNNE and the national Planned Parenthood organization still have their vocal detractors, including protesters who gather each Friday outside PPNNE offices at 439 Congress St., and the Maine Right to Life Committee.

“We would refer to (the protest) as a memorial,” Maine Right to Life Committee Executive Director Teresa McCann-Tumidajski said Monday.

McCann-Tumidajski said she objects to the methods and practices of Planned Parenthood, beyond the abortions provided at the Portland office to the treatment and advice given to patients.

“We do not think they help women, we think they harm women,” she said. “Their business model is abortion-based.”

Clegg and nurse practitioner Alison Bates, the clinical coordinator of abortion care, said protesters exaggerate the level of abortion services, which amounts to 5 percent of what is done in Portland.

PPNNE has four Maine offices and others in Vermont and New Hampshire; the only place abortions are performed in Maine is in Portland.

“Deeply ingrained in my cloth is the notion of reproductive justice,” Bates said. “It is important to who I am to eliminate barriers to care that is holistic, comprehensive and autonomous.”

Portland resident Becca Soule said PPNNE is there to offer accurate health care discussions and services that do not stigmatize the women and men seeking them.

Soule, 19, has been a patient for about 1 1/2 years. She said she sought services for contraception because of her initial discomfort discussing it with her family and physician.

“My friends were trying to help me, but they are not health-care professionals,” she said.

At PPNNE, she said, “I saw a midwife first, she was very informative and I did not feel pressured to do anything. I had no idea what to expect, how many people I would talk to and how it would be.”

Now in college and working two jobs, Soule is also a Planned Parenthood office volunteer.

“This is a lifesaver, this is preventive care,” she said. “I can’t afford to have a child now, I’m in school and I have two jobs.”

Clegg did not provide data about how many abortions have been performed in Portland, but noted U.S. Centers for Disease Control data showing a decline in the number of abortions performed nationally through 2011.

Locally, she said, providing contraception services last year prevented 2,200 unintended pregnancies that could have resulted in 920 abortions.

While Planned Parenthood is a century-old organization, its health-care services date to the legalization of the birth control pill in 1960. The first health center that would become PPNNE opened in Vermont in 1965; the first in Maine opened in North Windham in 1968.

Critics including McCann-Tumidajski and anti-abortion activist Leslie Sneddon point to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s attitudes about sterilization, eugenics and minorities as evidence of what the agency is truly about. But Clegg disavowed Sanger’s more controversial work, and said PPNNE’s work counters her writing.

“Margaret Sanger’s statements made more than 80 years ago were wrong then and are wrong now,” Clegg said. “PPNNE condemns racism. It is not what we stand for or work for. We are here to support the decisions women make and treat them with dignity and respect.”

Sneddon, who has had four abortions, is among those who began protesting outside the Congress Street offices two years ago, then fought a city ordinance requiring the protesters to stay across the street. The ordinance was rescinded after the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in Coakley v. McCullen, a June 2014 ruling that upheld the right of protesters in Massachusetts to not be confined to “buffer zones.”

“It is like putting a glass of water in front of a person and saying it only has a little bit of poison,” Sneddon said April 24. “In a way, that is what they are all about.”

Sneddon and McCann-Tumidajski said they do not object to providing birth control that does not terminate a pregnancy after conception, but accused PPNNE of steering women to abortions after they are pregnant.

Bates and Clegg disagreed.

“We recognize this is a complicated decision best made between a woman, her family and her health-care provider,” Clegg said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. Its offices at 439 Congress St., Portland, are a public stage in the debate over the use of abortion in women’s health care.

Becca Soule said Monday she has been coming to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England for about 1 1/2 years for contraceptive services. “I can’t afford to have a child now, I’m in school and I have two jobs,” she said.

Alison Bates, left, and Nicole Clegg of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England in Portland said their goal is to provide nonjudgmental reproductive health-care services to men and women.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.